By Rachel Cone
Surrounded by laughter and squeals of delight in the playground with my son Samuel, a nearby parent asks the seemingly simple question, “Oh, is he your only child?” My mind starts racing through all the different ways I can answer that question, but I quickly remind myself that I don't know this parent whose question is clearly intended to start a friendly conversation. “Yes,” I answer softly.
Other times I feel compelled to share the fact that I do have two children, one who “would have been 8 years old,” and one who “is 7 years old.” When Samuel is within hearing distance of me, more often than not that is my answer.
Which is the “easier” answer? While many people would think saying “yes” and moving on is easier, in fact it isn't. It only deepens the dismissal of the already taboo topic of pregnancy and infant loss. What I've come to realize is that not mentioning David presents a missed opportunity – for others who have also had a loss during pregnancy / infancy to connect with me and grieve in partnership even if for a brief moment with me.
David was my first born son, whose cause of inutero death was deemed “unknown” by the autopsy. It took courage to go through another pregnancy, but when Samuel was born a year later, I felt joy restored in my life again. This joy was intertwined with intensified grief as I experienced with Samuel so many things that I had dreamed of doing with David. I was a mother of two – one who I got to hold briefly and say good-bye to, and one who I will have the privilege to raise.
Am I different parent to Samuel because of David? I will never truly know the answer to this, but I believe that it has made me reflect on death and grief in ways that I might not otherwise have done. I speak openly with Samuel about these topics and the emotions they evoke. At times I have questioned my decision to be so candid about David, and share the details of my pregnancy, birth and emotional journey in the past eight years. How much should I tell him? Should I follow the norm and insist that death is what happens when you age or make unhealthy choices? What about those who die unexpectedly or for unknown reasons, including his brother? How honest should I be when he seeks assurance that he isn't going to die as a child? These are personal parenting decisions, with no right or wrong answers. I have found that answering his questions in an age-appropriate way has kept the door open for future dialogue.
Some days my own grief overpowers me, and I have a need to snuggle and hold Samuel in my arms while tears stream down my face. He has grown up surrounded by the knowledge and presence of grief's impact – including emotions, our annual rituals on David's birthday, my volunteer work as a grief support counselor to newly bereaved families, participating in events like the Walks to Remember, and even random encounters with strangers.
I remember being at a local park when Samuel was a toddler. While I was fumbling around to find a snack for him, he pulled at me and started to dig around in my bag and pulled out the tissues. I thought he was going to wash his hands, but instead he hurried over to the next bench and wiped away the tears of a woman sitting alone on the bench next to us. Samuel was not verbally advanced, but this gesture was so profound that it needed no words. The grateful (and speechless) stranger was so touched and gave Samuel the biggest hug ever. As it turned out, her tears were because she was overcome by grief watching the children playing in the park while she reflected on the void in her heart because one of her children was not there among them.
It was then that I realized that Samuel has a deep and unusual sensitivity and understanding of grief which I can attribute directly to our open conversations about David. Parenting is exhausting and challenging, but moments like that remind me that the rewards far outweigh the trying times.
I have found in the past eight years that sharing my experiences with the loss of David has connected me with many I would have never otherwise known, opened the dialogue about grief with my son, and sharing our story has contributed greatly to the healing of so many, not just me. I might have been a different parent had it not been for David, but I will never fully know how or in what ways. What I do know is that I am the mother of two boys, who have each influenced me and shaped me to be the mother that I am today.
Rachel is Mama to David...born still at 37 weeks on May 26, 2003 at 5 pounds 14 ounces; 21.5 inches; and Samuel...born healthy on June 2, 2004.